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Originally published Friday, July 19, 2013 at 5:05 AM

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Strange ‘Creatures’ roam through Francesca Sundsten’s paintings

With dazzling technique and spooky imagination, Seattle painter Francesca Sundsten dreams up a series of “Creatures” that embody the qualities of more than one species. At Grover/Thurston Gallery through Aug. 24, 2013.

Seattle Times arts writer

Exhibition review

Francesca Sundsten: ‘Creatures’

11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday through Aug. 24, Grover/Thurston Gallery, 319 Third Ave. S., Seattle (206-223-0816 or ).

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The strange beings in Seattle artist Francesca Sundsten’s new show, “Creatures,” blend human and wild-animal traits in the most unlikely ways — except for one item titled, simply, “Animal.”

An oil-on-linen painting, “Animal” depicts, with exquisitely accurate and luminous detail, the head of a young woman. Yet there’s something slightly “off” about her. Maybe it’s the abstraction of her gaze, her apparent unawareness of being observed. Or maybe it’s her coloration, so pale and diaphanous that she seems not quite of this world. Indeed, she looks more like some woodland creature, immersed in her own forest-glade world.

And that, in part, is Sundsten’s point.

Grover/Thurston Gallery co-owner Susan Grover revealed that when she asked Sundsten why the painting was titled “Animal,” Sundsten replied, “Because we are.”

Sundsten’s pristine handling of this “creature” makes good on that, rendering her subject with almost Audubon-like precision as a female of her species, pure and simple, before clothing, makeup, jewelry or any other adornments complicate the picture.

While “Animal” enjoys pride of place in “Creatures,” it has some powerful company, both among Sundsten’s large-scale oils on linen and her smaller oils on panel.

“Forest” is another stunner. Here, as elsewhere, Renaissance portraiture has a clear influence on Sundsten, who has the technical chops to put that influence to sophisticated work.

The “creature” in “Forest” is, again, human — a sort of young Bacchus — but his curly hair is a whole mini-menagerie of ladybugs, caterpillars, moths, a snail, even a bird’s nest and spider’s web, all entwined in leafy, ferny greenery. Is he dreaming a forest into existence? Is he being pleasurably absorbed by one? His serene gaze suggests either possibility might be true.

Elsewhere, the show depicts creatures of an even more hybrid nature.

“Nanook,” an oil-on-panel, places a wary-eyed human “insert” into the middle of a rounded wolflike/bearlike head. The image is so nonchalantly persuasive that Sundsten has deliberately marred it with a bright-red drip of paint on the upper right of the panel, as if to remind us that this captivating creature is a product of her paintbrush and imagination only. “Beak,” “Skin” and “Falconer” go even further in their mixing and matching of species traits.

Sundsten enjoys a good visual pun, notably in “Symbiosis,” in which her human subject cradles a swan in such a way that the bird’s webbed feet “read” as her breasts, while its head, draped over her own, takes on qualities of an eye patch for her and its spread wings suggest certain angelic possibilities.

Throughout “Creatures,” Sundsten’s dazzling painterly facility makes her fantastical subjects feel preposterously plausible. If you were to meet one on the bus or in the street, you might stare — but you wouldn’t for an instant doubt the possibility of their existence.

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

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